Thursday, September 27, 2007

[060] Sister

Album: Sister
Artist: Sonic Youth
Release Date: June 1987
Label: SST; reissued on DGC
Producer: Sonic Youth

"No one is right
Nothing is solid
Nothing can be held in my hand for long
We. Should. Kill. Time"
- from "Pipeline/Kill Time"

Sonic Youth were probably the most important band of the 1980’s. By sticking close to the ideals of their roots, but still evolving and improving through constant recording and touring, they wrote the book on how to be an Alternative Rock band in a post-Hardcore, MTV world. They saw the future because they were at the forefront of the present, and for the most part, they’re still lurking near the edge. To truly appreciate this though, it’s kind of necessary to hear more than a few of their albums, and – full disclosure – I was never a big fan of theirs. So, yeah, I was on a mission, because how could Sonic Youth exist and be so groundbreaking, and I not put my all into giving them a fair shake? The only album of theirs I ever actually bought was, of course, Daydream Nation, the 1988 epoch-defining follow-up to Sister, but for some reason I never really assimilated it beyond the essential “Teen Age Riot”. I burned copies of Goo and Dirty from my friend, but only listened to them a couple times. I started to concede that maybe they weren’t for me. So, I did what any frustrated music nerd would do – I downloaded their entire discography on the Internet. When I listened to Sister for the first time, I had already started writing these entries. The list was done, but now I had an album on my hands that absolutely had to be included. I had to cut an album (which will show up in a couple weeks as Part 2 of the Honorable Mentions), and it was painful to choose. And once Sister was on the list, and I kept listening to it, it kept getting better and better, and moving further and further up the list. If I didn’t post it now, I’d have to keep changing the order everyday. I guess all it took for me to like Sonic Youth was this one album. I approached the band’s discography with a certain preconception of their earlier material; I assumed that anything before Daydream Nation was feral noise that I had no interest in. Then I heard “Schizophrenia”. I was very wrong.

“Schizophrenia” is one of the weirdest, most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in recent months; the guitars link up in just the right way, bent notes having conversations. It helps that Steve Shelley is a thrilling drummer, and I have no clue how the band ever made music without him. He wrenches the steering wheel from Thurston Moore’s hands for “Catholic Block”, banging out the sort of dance rock that has become so en vogue in recent years, and the rest of the band follows his lead. All the songs exhilarate on a base level; when you’re deathly afraid of something, pure fear releases adrenaline like pure excitement does. That’s the effect that Sister has. More than in any album I’ve heard in a very long while, I hear the future in Sister. I see the entire course of Alternative laid out like Kim Gordon’s “Pacific Coast Highway”, guitars thrashing, banging on anything just to make noise, get your attention, someone hear them. These songs are hot to touch. “Stereo Sanctity” manages to be completely unbridled, but where the old Sonic Youth would’ve disintegrated into the squall, they remain whole here, honoring the song, rush rush rush rush, big finish…or fall apart from fatigue. It’s nothing new, the sounds they coax out of their guitars, the different tunings, the banging on the strings with whatever, as soon as Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo create new languages, they get to work on butchering it with slang. On the hesitating, ethereal “Kotton Krown”, Moore and Gordon sing a love song to each other, intoning “Angels are dreaming of you”, while Ranaldo slaughters a roomful of guitar pedals behind them. Moore and Gordon safely pack their love away, and join in on ratcheting up the sonic dissonance.

Ranaldo’s “Pipeline/Kill Time” forms the centerpiece of the album, plainly illustrating the success of the song cycle – as all these songs push the limits of structure, of noise, of lyrical linearity, heavily influenced by author Phillip K. Dick, the band never lose themselves. As Ranaldo lets slip the quote at the top, his guitar starts to break apart and float away. Somehow, Moore walks in right through the exploding noise, swatting away the fuzz like erasing a blackboard, and plants the perfect pop of the opening verse of“Tuff Gnarl”, before that song too goes off on tangents of six-string dread, with Shelley pounding out tribal machine-gun beats. They return, as if gone around the block, on “White Kross”, dicing up cyclical guitar churn and industrial beats. Sonic Youth walk in another time, playing today because they’ve seen tomorrow, and know how to get there; even the relative novelty “Master-Dik” pokes holes in Hip-Hop while also paying tribute to it, evoking Run-DMC over squealing loops. Furthermore, is it an accident that their cover of San Francisco punks Crime, the 1976 gem “Hot-Wire My Heart”, sounds simultaneously like The Stooges and Nirvana? They knew what was coming, as they stood on the line of the old and new, punks of the 80’s getting snatched up by major labels, releasing this album on Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s seminal label SST, at the end of its heyday, almost as if closing a chapter in music history. Punk was packed into a small room, and what Sonic Youth understood was that they had to knock a few walls down to make room for the all new arrivals. They were a step ahead; in Sister, you'll hear the future too.

01. "Schizophrenia"
02. "(I Got A) Catholic Block"
03. "Beauty Lies In The Eye"
04. "Stereo Sanctity"
05. "Pipeline/Kill Time"
06. "Tuff Gnarl"
07. "Pacific Coast Highway"
08. "Hot Wire My Heart"
09. "Kotton Krown"
10. "White Kross"
11. "Master Dik" [CD bonus track]

"Schizophrenia" [live]
from the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke

"(I Got A) Catholic Block" [live at the Osheaga Festival, 09.06]

- BONUS: "Beauty Lies In The Eye" [video]
- BONUS: "Stereo Sanctity" [live in Wisconsin, 1987]
- BONUS: "Schizophrenia" [live in London, 1987]
- BONUS: Well, I have no words. You just have to watch.

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